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Blood-letting is not medicine - The Ex-Communicator

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February 22nd, 2011


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09:37 am - Blood-letting is not medicine
Yes, so basically I have been wondering what lies behind the strange budget-cutting decisions which are going on at the moment. For example my organisation - which ceases to be this week - generated roughly five pounds of revenue for every pound spent on it. The main way it did this was negotiating purchase deals, and providing centralised advice to increase efficiency of spend and deployment (we had no statutory power to enforce any of this, it was just cost effective to participate). Anyway - boring to those not involved, but basically a machine to turn pounds into fivers.

Could it have been improved? Hell yes. With some tinkering it could have been made into a machine to turn pounds into tenners, no bother. The achievements were off-set by some terrible decisions and wasteful activities. It needed reform.

However abolishing it literally can not save money. It's got to be a net loss. It's just stopping putting pound coins into the replicator. My particular job - providing advice to the SoS and other Ministers on technical issues - is hard to quantify in terms of revenue. It's hard to quantify what benefit I brought. However, I was pretty inexpensive for what I did. I think I was a bargain.

For a long time I wondered whether this destruction of revenue (and un-costable benefit) was deliberate sabotage, or ignorance. Of course the two are not clearly distinct. To make important decisions in ignorance is a kind of chaotic sabotage. And a second question is, what would the motive for such sabotage be? And motive and belief are hard to define - people are layered, and may hold a particular motive in their conscious mind, while other motives are real but unexamined. People may at one level believe that destruction will clear the ground for growth, and at another level, may be acting from unexamined anger (or whatever).

A third explanation, which in all this pondering I hadn't considered strongly enough, is that the Government has a model which says that what stimulates private business is good (an arguable position) and that people who run businesses instinctively understand what macro-policies will support their businesses. I think this second bit is definitely false. Business men don't have expertise in translating their needs into wider policies. Looking after their interests is not just giving them what they want all the time.

ETA - to make it clear I don't actually think any private businesses wanted us to be abolished, and many complained when it happened, but they are still responsible for an overall attitude that public spend inevitably results in a subtraction rather than an addition of revenue.

(11 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


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From:andrewducker
Date:February 22nd, 2011 09:49 am (UTC)
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I totally agree. The government is there (IMHO) to look after the wider range of things that people's (and businesses') immediate interests won't cover. Long term planning, for instance. Or things where a central organising unit can improve overall efficiency and cost-effectiveness (like yours).

I can't think of a reason why your organisation would be shut down when it was of net benefit.
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From:communicator
Date:February 22nd, 2011 10:18 am (UTC)
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I think the proximate reason was to demonstrate that the SoS 'meant business': look you lot, if we can abolish them, then none of you are safe, so pull your socks up. In other words it was a bit of macho posturing from a rather weak and silly man.

The larger reason is lack of understanding of the public sector IMHO
[User Picture]
From:andrewducker
Date:February 22nd, 2011 10:27 am (UTC)
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Wouldn't surprise me at all.

Too much is done to look good, rather than doing good.
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From:iainjcoleman
Date:February 22nd, 2011 11:45 am (UTC)
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I don't know anything about this specific situation other than what you've written, and of course it may be down to nothing more complex or subtle than Michael Gove being a tit.

However, based on my own experiences in various other organisations, the first question I would ask is: did your organisation have a high-level champion? You make a strong case, but was anyone making this case to the Secretary of State? Was he making the case to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury? Unless that happens, your organisation just looks, on paper, like a non-essential cost centre - which is not a good way to appear at a time of significant budget pressures.

It's instructive to look at the tussle of science research funding. Initially, this was in line for serious cuts, of order 20-25%. A crazy idea: like your organisation, scientific research generates about five pounds for every pound spent. The smart thing to do in difficult economic times is to increase science funding, not decrease it. So, Vince Cable made a big speech, setting out clearly and in detail the case for funding science, which ended by saying that unfortunately it was going to be drastically cut. Evan Harris immediately responded with a public call to arms, urging scientists to lobby against these cuts. The community got busy lobbying, and the end result was that science research funding was frozen in cash terms. Not an ideal result - a modest real terms cut - but manageable, and much better than the initial plan.

Now, as soon as I read Vince's speech I thought it didn't make any sense except as a coded call to the science community to oppose the cuts. I am also sure Vince and Evan have one another's phone numbers. There was a rational, financial case for maintaining research funding, but it needed high level champions, supported by substantial lobbying, to put that case to the Treasury.

If your organisation had such champions, then I would look elsewhere for an explanation for the cuts. But if it didn't, then I think that's the only explanation you need.
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From:communicator
Date:February 22nd, 2011 11:59 am (UTC)
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The SoS had only been in post for a few days when the decision was made. We had been presenting research findings demonstrating the cost-benefit case that I outline here for about 18 months prior to our abolition, because we knew that there would be a need to defend out existence.

There are two issues.

One is that there was a discontinuity - obviously - between the people who had heard our case, and those who were making the decision. Could talk more about this.

Secondly, I think the people at the top of my organisation are too timid. I think they felt being restrained would bring reward. They did not slam fists on desks. If I had been in their shoes I would have fought harder, started earlier, and trusted a lot less.

[User Picture]
From:muuranker
Date:February 22nd, 2011 04:28 pm (UTC)
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I wonder if the thinking is:
we give you a pound, and you spend five pounds on we're not quite sure what.


So you (or a mutual, cooperative, trust or other community orgianization) could go to the Big Society Bank Thingy and borrow a pound? You would then make £10 (being free of the silly red tape which kept your money machine capped at £5), of which £2 would go back to the bank, leaving you with £8 to spend on whatever it is.



[User Picture]
From:communicator
Date:February 22nd, 2011 04:37 pm (UTC)
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The money is generated by negotiating cheap deals with companies like Microsoft, and by helping people not to waste money on poor purchases, or ineffective use of equipment. So, basically each individual school ends up spending less. So the gains are distributed, and to some extent invisible, while the expenditure is centralised and obvious. So - we never see the £5 gain, it doesn't go through our hands.

I believe we could have converted into a paid service like the AA, which drivers (or in this case, educational institutions) subscribe to, and get the benefits. But there wasn't time, and perhaps there wasn't will.
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From:muuranker
Date:February 22nd, 2011 06:50 pm (UTC)
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I think, with this level of compexity (!) I would go for ideology-blinded ignorance.
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From:tehomet
Date:February 22nd, 2011 09:41 pm (UTC)
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FWIW, I see your points about deliberate sabotage, ignorance and the flaws of the business model being (possible) factors in the budget cuts. I also think that there's an element of what I think of as weedkiller in the posh garden thinking.

For example, I am on career break from the housing department of my local council. One of the things I did was work with people who are homeless. Registering them as officially homeless, assisting with the admin. of the shelters, stuff like that. Doing that kind of thing, one can easily see that the usual root cause of homelessness is addiction. The powers that be are willing to (minimally) fund homeless shelters and outreach officers. Because an end-stage alcoholic sleeping rough somewhere they can see him or her is a weed in their garden. But do they put money into, say, education programmes or rehab centers to prevent or treat addiction? No. Because the human misery of addicts doesn't affect them until the seed is sown.

Your organisation got canned IMHO because although it was worthwhile, it just didn't register on the consciousness of TPTB. No matter how much financial good it was doing.
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From:communicator
Date:February 22nd, 2011 10:32 pm (UTC)
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I was thinking about this today, I read these two news stories:

Pregnancies in girls under 18 in England and Wales have fallen to levels not seen since the early 1980s, according to new government figures. The rate of conceptions in under-18s in 2009 fell by nearly 6% compared to the previous year.

Meanwhile:

Body which tackles teen pregnancy to close.

Think of the comparatively trivial amount that is saved by cutting contraceptive advice services. Cutting the methadone programme the same. It just seems like madness to me.
[User Picture]
From:tehomet
Date:February 22nd, 2011 10:35 pm (UTC)
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Madness, quite right.

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